So fourth place finally looks futile, unattainable for yet another year. Liverpool won't qualify for Europe's premier competition for the third-consecutive season, a millennium given the club's historical accomplishments.
However, I respectfully disagree with two very intelligent Liverpool bloggers. It's still not time to play the kids.
This season has been transitional, for better and worse. But Dalglish, Comolli, et al shouldn't give up on the plan for transition in the hopes of speeding up the development of long-term prospects such as Jonjo Shelvey, Jon Flanagan, Jack Robinson, Conor Coady, or, the most precocious, Raheem Sterling.
Thanks to Daniel Agger's recent injury, Sebastian Coates is a different case. The young Uruguayan should and will see more playing time than otherwise expected. Playing him instead of Carragher for the majority of matches from here out seems a no-brainer, regardless of events against Arsenal. But Agger's injury is what makes Coates' situation different. I'd say the same for Shelvey or Robinson if Gerrard or Enrique – Fowler forbid – suffered an extended injury. That's not the same as increasing Shelvey, Flanagan, Robinson, or Sterling's appearance total simply because the Champions League is now a lost cause.
The reasoning for this is two-fold. The first delves deep into the realm of hypothetical. Say Liverpool start Shelvey et al more often, and Liverpool's results become even more inconsistent and infuriatingly frustrating. Not only could that hinder the development of the individual players, it could hinders the club in general. In isolation, finishing 5th is little different than finishing 7th, especially with Europa League qualification assured due to the Carling Cup. But how Liverpool finish the season – with confidence, playing well or on a losing streak, questioning every and anything – matters very much. It will set the tone for both the off-season and the start of the next.
The second, slightly more tangible, is that Liverpool are already in transition. The first team still needs as much work as Liverpool's next generation. We'd hoped that wouldn't be the case after two-thirds of the campaign, but it is. The likes of Downing, Adam, and Carroll – whatever your feelings on any of them – have important parts to play for the foreseeable future, and we haven't seen any of them play to their potential, at least as it relates to overall team performance.
To take the most-controversial example. As much as you may not like it, Kenny Dalglish sees Charlie Adam as a crucial part of his team. Otherwise, Adam wouldn't have started 25 of Liverpool's 26 Premiership matches and 29 of 36 in all competitions, no matter the debilitating injuries to Gerrard and Lucas. Adam has a role for the next few years and he needs the playing time as much as, if not more than, Liverpool's prospects. He will most likely remain a divisive player for the duration of his Liverpool career, but there's still room for improvement within the context of the team. His long-range passes will find more targets as he continues to familiarize with attackers' runs, his positioning will improve as his learns how his ever-changing midfield partner (or partners) positions himself. We know what we're getting with Charlie Adam, but we still don't know how well Charlie Adam can play for Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool. And similar can be said about Downing and Carroll. Regardless of age or experience, we've seen new signings improve in their second season, even if we think we know the extent of each's capabilities.
There is a set plan for developing the likes of Coates, Shelvey, Flanagan, Robinson, Sterling, etc. The increasing unlikeliness of qualifying for the Champions League shouldn't change that plan. Use Shelvey sparingly, mostly off the bench with a start or two, if he's not going back out on loan. Involve Sterling with first-team training and away trips for acclimatization, maybe even a handful of bench appearances, but no more. Admittedly, if I had my way, almost every player mentioned above (excluding Coates and Sterling) would be out on loan for the rest of the season. But that's a different argument. And it doesn't appear to be part of the plan.
In addition, playing in the Europa League next year will benefit Liverpool's younger players more than anything, even more that a few forced first-team appearances over the remainder of this campaign. Livermore's progression at Tottenham is evidence of that.
What this boils down to is "keep on keeping on," as painful or boring as that may be. If this is truly a transitional season, stick to the plan for transition. Coates, Shelvey, Flanagan, Robinson and others are Liverpool's future, but the future isn't now yet.